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O Emmanuel – God with us

O Emmanuel, our king and our lawgiver,
the hope of the nations and their Saviour:
Come and save us, O Lord our God.

(O Emmanuel Antiphon )

We come to the conclusion of our reflections with O Emmanuel, O God with us.  This antiphon truly crowns all the titles of God, for it is in the mystery of the Incarnation that we come to know our God.  

All the other titles and the prophecies are brought to their fulfilment in Jesus’ Incarnation.  To be the key of David, the root of Jesse, the morning star, and so on – these would all be wondrous insights to God on their own, but to have them within a God who is so loving and humble, that he came to earth as a vulnerable baby, to live and die to save us from the bondage of our sins and to offer us eternal life, is extraordinary.

In John’s gospel the importance of this singular fact is present from the very beginning – “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.” (John 1.14)

Everything which follows, Jesus’ life and ministry, his death and resurrection and ascension, all occur because he was born at all.

John stresses that Jesus, the Word, pre-existed before his birth, holding this in tension with his fully human existence (“made flesh”).  We sing this every Christmas, “God of God, Light of Light, lo, he abhors not the Virgin’s womb.”

Furthermore, those words that The Word “dwelt among us” are also important.  There is a link to the dwelling of Wisdom in Israel (Sirach 24.8), and the traditional link between the Logos and Sophia, both expressions of God’s Wisdom.

In the Old Testament, whilst the Israelites were in the wilderness, they had a holy meeting Tent, the place of God’s dwelling among His special people, and that word we know as ‘tabernacle’. 

The Jewish Feast of Sukkot (which translates as the Feast of Tabernacles or Booths) is a Torah-commanded holiday which we know Jesus celebrated (John 7), and indeed was pressed to reveal himself at before His hour had come.  

And at the Transfiguration, Peter felt moved to offer to build tents for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah – an echo of God’s dwelling or tabernacling with his people.

It is why we call the place where we keep the reserved sacrament the tabernacle, for God still dwells with us.

If we turn our attention to the last words of Jesus in Matthew’s gospel we are reminded how that is still the case:

“And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”  (Matthew 28.19b)

Everything about the Christmas story reminds us that we do not worship an absentee landlord of a god.  Our God is fully present with us, knows and loves us, and is involved in our lives. In our prayers we open our hearts to God and invite His Holy Spirit to be at work in us and in the world.  At Christmas we celebrate the intimacy of God’s relationship with us.  At the Eucharist heaven and earth touch, and Christ is present in bread and wine, body and blood. 

If this is all true, then how can we respond except by falling to our knees in wonder and praise?  For our God is with us.

So this Advent – reflect on God’s presence in your life, and take a little time to prepare yourself before you come to worship the Christ-child this Christmas – like the shepherds with obedience and humility, like the Magi with wisdom and trust, like Mary and Joseph with all the love in your hearts.

O Oriens – An Advent Reflection

O Morning Star,
splendour of light eternal and sun of righteousness:
Come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

(O Oriens Antiphon )

We continue our reflections with O Oriens, O Morning Star.

Of course, we now know that the bright morning star is the planet Venus making its way across the sky, but science cannot strip the beauty and poetry from this title. It is a still a star which shines brighter than any other. It can still be used to guide travellers when modern technology fails. If we stop being busy for a moment and gaze upon the starry skies above us, we are reminded of the immensity and pure wonder of God’s creation, and of our own place within it. It is a joyful experience to stand and watch the skies transform from inky blue to the golden pinks of dawn, as the day lies open before us.

This title of Morning Star or Dayspring reflects probably the most common of all Christian and biblical symbols, that of light.

At the beginning of the Creation God made both day and night; both belong to him, and both are valued by him. Don’t underestimate our need for night – without it sleeping and rest would be difficult, and a myriad of creatures would not be able to go about their daily lives.

However, God saw that the light was good (Genesis 1.4), and from that point there has been a special relationship between God and light.

Indeed, it is our human nature which turns night problematic. It is our sinful nature that leads people to commit sins under the cover of darkness. It is lack of preparation for the coming of the Lord that leaves the corners of our lives and souls in shadow, dusty and unattended.

For the Israelites who had suffered hundreds of years of slavery in Egypt, followed by the threat of neighbouring countries and exile in Babylon, and finally the oppression of the invading Roman Empire, the words of Isaiah had deep resonance – it was a land of deep darkness.

These words sound like Narnia, trapped in a constant winter, cold and harsh. The Messiah was to come and change that. He would be the coming dawn of freedom, justice and righteousness.

Of course, it turned out that when Jesus came, it was not immediately obvious to everyone that he was the dayspring. But, there were plenty of signs, for those who looked.

The Magi followed a star as it travelled across the heavens. Such a journey was not the same as following a satnav, and at least at one point the Magi let their own expectations lead them to the palace of Herod, rather than the outbuilding of Bethlehem. But the star guided them there, and they knelt in homage.

Simeon in the Temple saw and understood. He, with great joy, echoed the words of Isaiah as he praised God for sending this child, who was “A light to reveal you to the nations and the glory of your people Israel” (Luke 2.32).

A small number of the disciples also were shown how Jesus was the Light from Light, as Christ’s identity was revealed at the Transfiguration, as “his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white” (Matthew 17.2).

After that experience it is of little wonder that when John came to write his Gospel, he began by mirroring the Genesis narrative, and declaring that Jesus is the light of the world who will bring to light all purposes of the heart. He frees those who are bound in the darkness of slavery or marginalisation – for his light raises the humble from where they have been pushed aside, and gives them their due worth as children of God, made in his image. He sends light into all those dark corners of the soul, and yes that can be uncomfortable, but after a good sweep out, we know ourselves to be closer to what we called to be.

So this Advent – reflect on where you would like Christ’s light to shine, in the world and in your life. Do not be afraid, but trust that this light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.

O Radix Jesse – A Reflection for Advent

O Root of Jesse, standing as a sign among the peoples;
before you kings will shut their mouths,
to you the nations will make their prayer:
Come and deliver us, and delay no longer.

(O Radix Jesse antiphon)

We continue our reflections with O Ra-dix Jesse, O Root of Jesse, another title which underpins both the importance of the prophecies of the Old Testament, and Jesus’ identity, both human and divine.

Jesse was the father of King David, and the prophet Micah had foretold that the Messiah would be of the house and lineage of David. He also prophesied that the Messiah would be born in David’s city, Bethlehem (Micah 5.2).

Such a lineage would certainly have shaped expectations of what the Messiah would look like – a king, a powerful ruler. It’s no wonder that with such prophecies in place when the Magi arrived at Kind Herod’s palace asking to see “the child who has been born king of the Jews?” (Luke 2.2) he became fearful.

And it’s moving to hear those words afresh so soon after the feast of Christ the King, knowing that they would be written as a mock judgement, and placed above Jesus’ head as he hung upon the cross.

It means that the true king would be seen to come from a kingly line, and again we see the importance of the Incarnation. Jesus did not simply pop up randomly; he appeared at a particular time and place for a reason. All the signs and prophecies pointed to him, and he could point back to them.

It is, therefore, no surprise that Matthew’s Gospel, which is full of evidence taken from the Old Testament to prove who Jesus was, lists the ancestors of Jesus. (Luke does the same, but the genealogy is missing from Mark and John’s gospels).

I suspect this passage is often skipped over when the Gospel is being read, but reflect on why Matthew opens his Gospel with this long list of names. He is rooting, no pun intended, Jesus into humanity. And yes, there are kings, David and Solomon, but rather interestingly there are a lot of women mentioned as well:

Tamar (Genesis 38) who became pregnant by deception after her father-in-law did not fulfil his legal duties to her.

Ruth who was a Moabite, and a Gentile, but through righteousness found a home in Israel (The Book of Ruth).

Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11) whose husband, Uriah, was murdered by king David, and she was raped.

This is the harsh reality of life – exiles and survivors. If God can work through these situations, just watch out for what he works through Mary!

However, is there more to the title than this?

Well yes. In the Old Testament Ezekiel called the unfaithful leaders and prophets ‘false shepherds’, and in comparison God says he will be the True Shepherd (Ezekiel 34). Jesus later calls himself the Good Shepherd (John 10).

Like this, in the Old Testament we have powerful nations described as like the tall trees of Lebanon, which relates to the beautiful cedar trees which were vital for trade, and used in the Temple.

In Isaiah 2, he prophesies: “For the Lord of hosts has a day against all that is proud and lofty, against all that is lifted up and high; against all the cedars of Lebanon, lofty and lifted up; and against all the oaks of Bashan; against all the high mountains, and against all the lofty hills; against every high tower, and against every fortified wall; against all the ships of Tarshish, and against all the beautiful craft.
The haughtiness of people shall be humbled, and the pride of everyone shall be brought low; and the Lord alone will be exalted on that day…”

In Isaiah 10 again we hear how the tallest trees will be cut down. At that time Israel appeared a mere stump compared to its enemies. But even in the face of such trauma, God can still do the impossible, and new, more perfect growth will come, in the Messiah.

So this Advent – reflect on what it would be like to take rest under the shadow of the true tree of life, Jesus Christ. Ask God to be grafted onto him, and to bring forth the good fruits of the Holy Spirit.

O Sapientia – An Advent Reflection

O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High,
reaching from one end to the other,
mightily and sweetly ordering all things:
Come and teach us the way of prudence.

(O Sapientia Antiphon )

All the antiphon titles given to Jesus can be found in the prophecies of Isaiah. He listened to God and passed to the people a set of names so that they would have hope in the future redemption promised to them, the coming of the Messiah.

The first antiphon, Sapientia or Wisdom, takes us deep into the mystery of the Incarnation. Isaiah called the Messiah ‘Wonderful Counsellor’ (Isaiah 9.6), as well as having a “spirit of wisdom and understanding” (Isaiah 11.2-5).

But what is this Wisdom?

The Messiah was to carry the weight of the world upon him, rooted in God’s justice and righteousness. He would have understanding beyond mere book learning, and his actions and choices would show the type of wisdom that cuts through deceit, trickery and ignorance.

So was Jesus wise?

Every Christmas Day we hear the Prologue of John’s Gospel, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1.1) And we are reminded that Jesus came us to as the Logos, the One in whom God is revealed.

Throughout the Gospels, the authors regularly reported how astonished people were at Jesus’ wisdom and authority. When he was growing up, Luke’s story of Jesus’ parents mislaying him, tells that when they did find him, he was in the Temple. “And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.” (Luke 2.47)

Later in his ministry, his teaching would again astound those who heard him. “They were all amazed, and they kept asking one another, ‘What is this? A new teaching – with authority!’” (Mark 1.27)

His wisdom would even cause people to reject him: “They said, ‘Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him?’” To them Jesus was simply a carpenter, the son of Mary, and so they took offence at him. (Mark 6.1-6).

And yet wisdom is an attribute of God. We see the work of God in the order and beauty of the creation around us. We instinctively know the difference between right and wrong, as if it somehow embedded in the very fabric of the universe. We shape our culture and society around laws and guiding principles. We value learning and education, easily seeing reason as a God given gift.

But it’s worth remembering that Jesus was unafraid to challenge and condemn the teaching of the scribes and elders. In this he reveals to us that God’s wisdom is as sharp as a double-edged sword. The wisdom of God is not the same as the ‘cleverness of the clever’. (1 Corinthians 1.19)

Indeed, if we look to God for the type of intelligence we fully understand the chances are we will be disappointed.

Instead we are given a king born in an outbuilding, who died on a cross. God’s wisdom turns worldly wisdom on its head, and yet invites us to know him more fully. For now we understand only in part. Our understanding is just a fragment, the small part of the underside of the tapestry that we can see. But the day is coming when we will see the whole tapestry of the universe, and our understanding will be complete. Only then will we truly discover that God’s wisdom is unlimited in every direction. This is not something to be feared, but celebrated. We can’t earn this, but God invites us into it freely.

So this Advent – reflect on the Christmas story and look for God’s wisdom in what took place, so that we, who are lowly, might find ourselves freed from ignorance and sin.

The Word of Reunion

It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.’ Having said this, he breathed his last.                                                     (Luke 23.44-46)

The time has come for us to fix our eyes on our Lord and witness to his death.  Of those who stand with us at the foot of the cross some are stoic, some weep and some are afraid.  We know that fear – we are living through an unprecedented time of change and anxiety.  We worry about the coronavirus disease and the impact this is having on our health service, and for those in need of other medical treatment.  There are real concerns about how this will impact our futures; what businesses will suffer, what jobs will be lost; and what will life look like for our children when we come out the other side?

But the very last words of Jesus are not those of fear.  They are of complete trust, a moment of coming home, of reunion.  Again these are words from the childhood hymnbook of Jesus, from Psalm 31.  It has become the prayer of so many people since they were uttered on the cross; of the martyrs, men and women tortured and killed for their beliefs, of the sick and dying, of someone mourning a loved one, and all those baffled and confused by their suffering in whatever form it takes.  It is a prayer of trust – of giving up all pretence of control and of a total reliance on God.  It is a prayer that in weakness gives strength to so many.

Let us spend a few moments in silence as we reflect on what we each fear the most – is it public humiliation, loneliness, a painful death or the death of a loved one?  

Is it fearing to follow Jesus fully because we think we will fail him or because we are scared of what might be asked of us?  

Then, as we stand at the foot of the cross, let us offer up our response:  Lord, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

 

 

(Artwork: ‘Christ of Saint John of the Cross; by Salvador Dali

The Word of Triumph

When Jesus had received the wine, he said, ‘It is finished.’                         (John 19.30a )

Hours have passed and still Jesus hangs upon the cross.  Each breathe is agony as Christ struggles to lift his body, and the effort makes each final word shorter and shorter.  Despite this he doesn’t now say ‘I’m done’ or ‘I can’t go on’ but ‘it is finished’.  These are words of completion and of triumph.  

The task that Jesus undertook was at the point of perfection.  God’s work has been done, and in that end was a new beginning.  It is hard for us today to move easily between sorrow and joy, but in our self-isolation and quarantine, if we look forward to that moment when it is finished we will see that there will be only complete and unending happiness.  No more pain, no more tears, only joy.

Let us spend a few moments in silence as we reflect on our own mortality in light of the words in 1 Corinthians 15: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.  Where, O death, is your victory?  Where, O death, is your sting?’  

Then, as we stand at the foot of the cross, let us offer up our response:  Lord, I thank you with all my heart.

 

 

(Artwork: San Damiano Cross, before which St Francis of Assisi was praying when he is said to have received the commission from the Lord to rebuild the Church. It now hangs in the Basilica of Saint Clare in Assisi)

The Word of Distress

After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfil the scripture), ‘I am thirsty.’ A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth.                    (John 19.28-29)

When something is withheld, we seem to automatically crave it more.  It is why Lenten disciplines of fasting and self-denial are as difficult as they are.  In fasting we enter into Christ’s our suffering in the wilderness, and prepare ourselves for times when the things we yearn for are denied to us, including life itself.  In this pandemic, our Lent has become one larger season of denial, and it hurts.

It is no surprise that Jesus was thirsty – he was drained by blood loss and sweating.  Unable to move he longs for someone to give him something to slake his thirst.  As we watch someone takes a sponge, dips it in sour wine and then sticks it on a hyssop branch, lifting it up to Jesus’ mouth.  It might be all that there was, but it was not an action that would bring relief from a parched mouth.  It was a thoughtless gesture without real care or love.  It was the kiss of Judas once more, an empty sign.

But as we watch we realize that Jesus is telling us about something beyound his physical needs.  From his place of desolation he thirsts for more than water.  

Was his greatest pain that of rejection?  To be unwanted, despised, to know that others wished to inflict sadness and hurt upon him, and yet his love was unbounded.  He still longed for us to come back to him.  He thirsts for us.

And we for him.  We don’t always know it, but that desire for God is deep within us.  Jesus saw it in the Samaritan woman by the well when he offered her living water.  In a moment he will die and his side will be opened and out will pour that living water.

Let us spend a few moments in silence as we reflect on the first verse of Psalm 42: “as a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.’  

Then, as we stand at the foot of the cross, let us offer up our response:  Lord, I yearn for you.

 

 

(Artwork: ‘Issenheim Altarpiece’ by Matthias Grünewald)

The Word of Abandonment

From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ that is, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, ‘This man is calling for Elijah.’ At once one of them ran and got a sponge, filled it with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink. But the others said, ‘Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.’                                         (Matthew 27.45-49)

The first three sayings of Jesus show how even in the darkest moments something good, something of the light was to come out of it;  forgiveness, the promise of Paradise, and the very beginning of the Church.  But now, as we continue our faithful watch at the foot of the cross, Jesus cries out with words of pure desolation.

If we know God is with us, we can endure almost anything, because we know that pain and sorrow will pass, and joy and peace will return.  But if it feels as if God is not in our lives, then the emptiness is a pain in a league of its own.  

The pandemic lockdown is hard to cope with because of the uncertainty of when it will end.  The guidelines change continually, and we wait, not knowing when the restrictions will be lifted, of what the “exit strategy” is, vaccine or “herd immunity”, phrases most of us had never used before all this happened.  How long, O God; how long must we wait?

For anyone with a sense of being abandoned by God it is the most crucifying of all pains; it is the end of hope, a place of despair and nothingness.  Then we can only pray, ‘My God, why have you deserted me?’

These are words from Psalm 22.  Someone, hundreds of years before Christ’s Crucifixion, had been in total anguish and they had written those feelings down.  Now Jesus takes those words and embraces that human experience of desolation.   Even the experience of the absence of God is somehow brought within God’s own life.

Let us spend a few moments in silence as we remember the times we have been faced with people who are experiencing suffering that makes everything seem meaningless, that life seems ruined.  We may even be living such moments right now.

Then, as we stand at the foot of the cross, let us offer up our response:  Lord, please be with me.

 

 

(Artwork: ‘Christ Crucified’ by Diego Velázquez)

The Word of Relationship

Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.                                                                    (John 19.25b-27)

Covid-19 is teaching us much of the value of community – for our families, and the pain of being divided from them; for our neighbours, and how in their troubled times how important they have become for practical and morale support.

On Calvary we stand next to three women and a man.  They are dignified, courageous and all that is left of the small community Jesus spent so long building up.  Everyone else has run away.  Judas has sold him for 30 pieces of silver.  Peter has denied him just as Jesus knew he would.  The rest of his friends are nowhere to be found.  This is all that is left.

With all that Jesus is going through it would be understandable if he had no other thought but for his own pain.  But now he looks down at those gathered at the foot of the cross, and with a few words of love he creates the first family.  His mother is given a son in his closest friend, and the beloved disciple is given a mother.

This is not just any community; it is our community, our family.  This is our mother and our brother.  In Christ we are kin, because we share the same blood, the blood of the cross.  To address a Christian we can call them ‘brother’ or ‘sister’.  It doesn’t matter how we came to the cross, what happened to bring us there, all our loves are different but there is no competition or rivalry in how we love Christ.  Sometimes we don’t recognise our God in the love of another person.   We can dismiss their faith as old-fashioned or new fangled; but right now Jesus asks us to open our eyes and see in them a new family, a new way of loving and living.

Let us spend a few moments in silence as we think about those who have loved us and how they shaped our lives – let us give thanks for those whom we cannot be with at this time.  Is there time today to ring them and tell them what they mean to us? 

Let us also think about our brothers and sisters who are not relatives, and pray them.

Then, as we stand at the foot of the cross, let us offer up our response:  Lord, I will love them.

 

 

(Artwork: ‘The Crucifixion, seen from the Cross’ by James Tissot)

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